A Thinker Without Final Thoughts on God | R.S. Thomas and His Poetry

rs thomas with birdwatching glassesOne of the rarest of human birds is the thinker without final thoughts.

I can picture R. S. Thomas reclining in dry grasses among the rocks on a hillside overlooking Bardsey Sound, his high-powered field glasses trained on the sky, waiting for a thinker without final thoughts to fly by. Many days. Most days. No luck.

Meanwhile, Thomas has time to think about cuckoos – cocksure people who think they have thought their final thought about everything.

In particular, God.

Some people think they have thought their final thought about God: God is – They think they can prove it.

Other people think they have thought their final thought about God: God isn’t – They think they can prove it.

And Thomas, as I see him at his birdwatching, continues to think about a poem by his favorite American poet, Wallace Stevens:

We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches,
Not in a single world,
In things said well in music,
On the piano, and in speech,
As in a page of poetry –
Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos, . . .

As a thinker without final thoughts, Thomas goes on thinking about God, and out of his thinking comes the insight that God cannot “be penned / In a concept.”

I’ve loved that “penned” ever since I came upon it many years ago in Thomas’s poem “After the Lecture.” We cannot use a pen to get God down in black letters on white paper. And we cannot pen God – cage God – in rational formulations, in theological concepts, in dogmas and doctrines and creeds.

God resists our every effort to contain God in our rationality.

In his poem “The Combat,” Thomas stands the biblical account of Jacob’s wrestling match with an angel on its head. Jacob wrestles all night with the angel in Genesis 32:24-30, and at daybreak, when the angel is unable to pin Jacob, they begin to talk, and eventually Jacob asks for the angel’s name. The angel declines to give it, leaving Jacob and the modern reader wondering if Jacob’s wrestling partner is, in fact, God.

Thomas, in his poem, tells the wrestling partner:

You have no name.
We have wrestled with you all
day, and now night approaches,
the darkness from which we emerged
seeking; and anonymous
you withdraw, . . .

In both Thomas’s poem and the Bible, the wrestler insists on remaining anonymous; on not revealing a name that might allow us to pen this mysterious being in a concept.

Jacob got a hand on the wrestler, but he never got a handle on this mystery.

Thomas concludes his poem with these lines:

 . . . We die, we die
with the knowledge that your resistance
is endless at the frontier of the great poem.

Thomas never says outright that the “you” addressed in his poem is God. But everything Thomas does say points in that direction.

And the poem makes clear that God resists thinkers who suppose they have thought final thoughts about God. God stops these thinkers at the border, shouting “Halt!” before they can enter into the “great poem.”

Poems quoted in this blog:

“We live in a constellation” – “July Mountain,” Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems (2009), 317.

“be penned / In a concept” – “After the Lecture,” Not That He brought Flowers, 22.

“You have no name” – “The Combat,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 43.

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2 thoughts on “A Thinker Without Final Thoughts on God | R.S. Thomas and His Poetry

  1. On the subject of names, yes, the angel did not give his. But after wrestling with God, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. He went from “supplanter” to “triumphant with God.” He would never be the same.

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